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Data visualizations unite water and air

Jonathan Vega

As an undergraduate, Jonathan Vega didn’t know much about contrails, those white streaks of water vapor and engine exhaust that follow airplanes across the sky. But that changed when he participated in a research project on the links between contrails and climate change.

Vega, a 2020 graduate of the BS in computer science program, happened upon the project by chance: one of his professors, G. Elisabeta Marai, had posted a call for research assistants in a UIC student portal. He had loved her video game class, CS 426 Video Game Design and Implementation, and thought the contrails project could be interesting.

His participation ended up having significant outcomes for Vega and for his community, earning him a UIC Chancellor’s Undergraduate Research Award and a chance to help his fellow members of the Colorado River Indian Tribe.

Vega’s role in the research project was to help create a data visualization that would capture the part that contrails play in climate change. “I didn’t know they contributed to global warming,” he said. “It’s like a blanket trapping heat in.”

Climate change is a topic with great personal significance to Vega. Research has shown that the flow of the Colorado River, which his tribe relies on not only for food but also for traditions and ceremonies, has slowed due to global warming, affecting tribe members’ day-to-day lives. He is now exploring ways in which his research can be applied to help his community.

Vega said in addition to the quality of UIC’s computer science program, one of the biggest reasons he attended UIC was the school’s Native American Support Program, which helped him navigate college and help him graduate. He hopes his future jobs will involve creating video games that incorporate his culture and heritage. He also is considering pursuing a master’s degree in computer science, as he’s developed a love for research.

The High-performance Computing and Data-driven Modeling of Aircraft Contrails project (PI: Roberto Paoli; Co-PI: G. Elisabeta Marai) is sponsored by the National Science Foundation through award # CBET-1854815.